Ferguson & the Social Sin of Racism

The New York Times has a useful timeline of events in Ferguson, Missouri since the August 9 killing of Michael Brown. Grantland's Rembert Browne has a gripping and harrowing personal account of his first 48 hours reporting in Ferguson. Recent racial profiling data from the office of the Missouri Attorney General gives a statistical snapshot of the institutionalized racism that exists in Ferguson. The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. By following #Ferguson on Twitter, not only can you get up-to-the-minute reporting of events on the ground, you also can get an introduction to a slew of talented journalists like the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Boston Globe's Akilah Johnson and others who can answer (and often, already have) just about any question you might have about the crisis centered on Ferguson.

I know a priest who once began a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by noting that in 30 years of ministry, every conversation he'd had about this parable eventually---and usually quickly---turned to the question, "Does that mean I have to give change to every beggar who asks?".  Similarly, almost every discussion of institutionalized racism in America today eventually ends up with someone saying, "Are you calling me a racist?  Because I didn't/don't have anything to do with _____ (fill in the blank: slavery, Jim Crow, racially exclusive housing covenants, Ferguson....).

With all due respect, as the US Catholic bishops noted 35 years ago in their pastoral letter "Brothers and Sisters to Us", that's not the point when we're talking about the social sin of racism:

The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices. As our recent pastoral letter on moral values states: "The absence of personal fault for an evil does not absolve one of all responsibility. We must seek to resist and undo injustices we have not caused, lest we become bystanders who tacitly endorse evil and so share in guilt in it."

"Brothers and Sisters to Us" is dated in some parts, and prone to an overuse of the quasi-diplomatic language that often affects documents written by committee; but in many places it remains relentlessly, prophetically clear-eyed and sober-minded:

Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church....

Racism is a sin....

Racism has been part of the social fabric of America since its European colonization....

Racism is apparent...in unemployment figures...in housing patterns...in the population in our prisons...in the attitudes and behavior of some law enforcement officials....

Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society....

As Catholics we're heirs to a long tradition of moral reasoning that recognizes the existence and values the importance of institutions, and of society as a whole.  We also recognize the existence of sin---both individual and social.  Maybe we can draw upon those resources to help ourselves, and the rest of the nation, to get over the "...but I'm not a racist...you're not calling me a racist, are you..." kneejerk response, and get on with the necessary work of repentance and reparation for the sin of institutionalized racism.

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Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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